Protecting and preserving indigenous knowledge

The culturally vibrant Freedom Park formed the backdrop for the Indigenous Knowledge System Documentation Centres (IKSDC) knowledge-sharing forum that took place last week.

Located in Salvokop, Pretoria, Freedom Park is a memorial to honour those who sacrificed their lives to win freedom. It also celebrates and explores the country’s diverse people and our common humanity.

It was in this setting that stakeholders from across the country gathered to discuss a wide range of issues pertaining to the documentation, protection and management of indigenous knowledge.

The two-day event, which began on January 22 2018, was held under the theme “Reclaiming the future of indigenous knowledge’’. For the first time, all nine provinces were represented and participated in the discussions.

The purpose of the forum was to create a knowledge-sharing platform for IKSDC teams. The discussions focused on the vision behind the National Recordal System (NRS), reviewing the state of documentation across all IKSDCs, refining the NRS documentation processes across the provinces, and sharing best practices across IKSDCs.

The department of science and technology’s chief director: science missions, Dr Yonah Seleti, told the gathering: “Indigenous knowledge needs to be protected because using indigenous knowledge we can create our dreams and future.”

He added that indigenous knowledge can be utilised for community-centred development and collecting knowledge. He believes that it is is important for our society, and that people need to revisit and re-examine it.

The conference looked at using regional, national and international instruments for the promotion and protection of indigenous knowledge, using technology for innovation and entrepreneurship, and developing a system of accreditation and certification for indigenous knowledge system (IKS) holders. There are also many challenges and opportunities for indigenous knowledge in the education system.

Last year, Minister of Science and Technology Naledi Pandor presented the Protection, Promotion, Development and Management of Indigenous Knowledge Systems Bill to Parliament. The bill seeks to provide legal protection for indigenous knowledge, i.e. knowledge generated and owned by communities. Such knowledge includes medical practices, the production of food products and cultural expressions, songs and designs.

Cabinet adopted the historic Indigenous Knowledge Systems Policy in 2004. The adoption of the policy became a defining moment for South African communities by placing indigenous knowledge firmly on the political agenda. In response to the implementation of key imperatives in the policy, legislation affirming indigenous knowledge has since been enacted. Furthermore, an increasing number of government departments now have dedicated IKS-focused directorates and programmes in health, agriculture, rural development, environmental affairs, trade and industry, arts and culture, and traditional affairs.

Like many developing countries, South Africa seeks to ensure that the benefits of cumulative innovation associated with indigenous knowledge accrue to its holders while enhancing socioeconomic development. This is particularly true in the fields of traditional medicines, technologies and cultural expression, in which glaring evidence of expropriation and exploitation is frequently witnessed. The issue of access to and use of indigenous knowledge in these fields is becoming prominent in large part because of the huge economic implications of such knowledge.

In light of the foregoing and in the absence of specific legislation for the promotion, protection and development of indigenous knowledge, the Indigenous Knowledge Bill being developed by the department of science and technology recognises the transdisciplinary nature of indigenous knowledge. This makes it necessary for researchers, academics, business and policymakers to work in an integrated manner on issues such as food security, agriculture, conservation of the environment, sustainable development, education, and cultural and biological diversity. In addition, the proposed bill takes into account all forms of indigenous knowledge and the rich cultural heritage of indigenous communities.

In the face of knowledge erosion and rapidly disappearing cultural traditions, protection accompanied by promotion and development must offer transmission incentives to indigenous knowledge holders to encourage the promotion of informal innovations as a strategy for sustainable development. Protecting indigenous knowledge from unauthorised commercial use is included in this legislation.

In her address to Parliament, Pandor explained that indigenous knowledge was not protected by South Africa’s intellectual property law, and that the bill is intended to put an end to the exploitation of indigenous knowledge by international companies.

Indigenous knowledge generates value that is currently not recognised and compensated adequately, and its holders are not adequately rewarded when their knowledge is appropriated by the system currently in place.

Indigenous knowledge can help to meet the broader objectives of society, for instance conserving the environment, developing sustainable agriculture and ensuring food security, while its protection encourages the maintenance of traditional practices and lifestyles.

In this sense, the notion of “protection” is quite different from the notion applied under mainstream intellectual property law. The bill protects indigenous knowledge against “biopiracy” and mandates benefit sharing, as provided for under Articles 8(j), 15, 16 and 19 of the Convention on Biodiversity, rather than the establishment of a system of positive appropriation.

Moreover, the bill will provide clarity on the scope of incentives for and benefits of investing in indigenous knowledge research and development.

The indigenous knowledge bill encourages new developments in the management of cross-cultural knowledge transactions and also encourages the protection of indigenous knowledge for conservation. The conservation of cultural diversity is considered a precondition for the conservation of biological diversity.

In addition, the indigenous knowledge bill is an enabling instrument for the indigenous communities of South Africa to exercise their sovereign and inalienable rights, formal and/or informal, over their indigenous knowledge and related intellectual and cultural knowledge. These rights are also exercised through indigenous and customary laws, practices and values.

The bill is currently before the National Council of Provinces for public hearings in all nine provinces. This is the last step of the parliamentary process and is expected to be enacted before the end of 2018.

Tom Suchanandan is the director of advocacy and policy development at the department of science and technology

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